What is Your Favorite Animal?
So what exactly is a flying squirrel? Wait, flying squirrels actually exist? And do they fly?
Rocky, the Flying Squirrel
Never thinking much about flying squirrels, we were thrilled to learn they live all around us in North Carolina. Our first exposure to flying squirrels? Watching Rocky & Bulwinkle as kids a million years ago. If you are too young to remember, it is a great cartoon about Rocky, a flying squirrel & his pal, Bulwinkle, the moose. You can still see some of the old shows on Youtube.
So back to real flying squirrels. If you see something swooping overhead at night, it might not be a bat, but a flying squirrel. But are they actually flying? No, they are gliding from tree to tree using a patagium. Hmm, that is a new word for us.
What is a patagium?
It is a membrane made of fur that stretches from the wrist to the ankle and acts like a parachute when the flying squirrel leaps from a tree. Using the patagium and their tail, the flying squirrel is able to steer while gliding with flights recorded up to 300 feet. Wow, that is a long way! They can also turn 180 degrees. Watch flying squirrels glide in this short video narrated by David Attenborough.
And come to find out, flying squirrels have been around for 18-20 million years. But we rarely see them since they are nocturnal, which is one reason their eyes are so big. They need to be able to see in the dark while gliding and foraging.
So what do these guys eat? Well, they love truffles and other fungi. They also eat mushrooms, bird eggs, insects and flowers, making them omnivorous (meaning they eat plants & animals).
Endangered Carolina Northern Flying Squirrels
Out of 45 species of flying squirrel around the world, we have 3 in North America: the northern flying squirrel (including the subspecies, the Carolina northern flying squirrel), the southern flying squirrel & the Humboldt’s flying squirrel (located in Oregon, Washington, California and British Columbia, Canada). All are considered of least concern from a conservation status except for the Carolina northern flying squirrel (CNFS) and Virginia northern flying squirrel which are endangered.
And we were honored & incredibly lucky to actually see a Carolina northern flying squirrel on a recent weekend trip to Western North Carolina. There are only 9 known populations in existence.
Found at elevations above 4,500 feet in Tennessee, North Carolina & Virginia, we saw one while hiking although we weren’t sure at the time what it was.
Curiosity about a couple of mysterious tall poles on either side of a road called The Cherohala Skyway high up (over a mile high) in the mountains led to our amazing discovery of this incredibly elusive, highly secretive animal.
The Mysterious Poles!
What in the world is the purpose of these poles we wondered? There were 3 sets of 2 each spaced along the highway. Something having to do with snow? But what were the round, PVC tubes attached at intervals going up the poles? Quite the mystery.
So we asked our innkeeper, Robert Rankin, at the Snowbird Mountain Lodge where we were staying about the poles. He told us the story of the Cherohala Highway being built, a $100 million dollar project. Unfortunately, it was so wide, the Carolina northern flying squirrels in the area could not get across the road since a broad swath of trees on both sides were cut down to make way for the highway.
The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission with the aid of North Carolina Department of Transportation, Duke Energy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service all got together & constructed the poles to act as landing and launching spots for the squirrels to use in crossing the highway. And they seem to be working!
We also learned the PVC tubes are for hiding from predators while the flying squirrels are up on the poles. How cool is that! And after doing some research, we realized the squirrel with the big eyes we saw on our hike was indeed the endangered CNFS.
Other Cool Facts
Flying squirrels have many predators including owls, raccoons, and snakes. They nest high in trees and their young are born without any fur. The babies stay with their mom for a couple of months nursing & then leave to live on their own after about four months.
Helping the Carolina Northern Flying Squirrel
How can you help this cute endangered squirrel? Here is how the Southern Highlands Reserve & The Nature Conservancy are helping. The CNFS feeds on fungus living at the base of conifers. Unfortunately, many of the conifers (hemlocks, Fraser firs & red spruce trees) have been decimated due to a number of causes. Several groups have partnered to plant spruce trees in the squirrel’s habitat with over 4,000 planted to date. Read more about 4 women making a difference in our forests by planting red spruce trees.